June 23, 2010

A midsummer's daydream

What if, decades from now, long-form cricket - with no time limitations - is bigger than football?

The stroke was serenity itself, a pluperfect fusion of physical grace and preternatural timing. Off the ball sped, bisecting cover and extra cover, fizzing across the dewy floodlit turf as if borne on the shoulders of a thousand millipedes.

Such was the precision of the shot, its maker even picked out the aptest perimeter board, the bright green one promoting the planet's favourite laxative: SLOW - THE NEW HIGH. The sound of 5oz of leather against aluminium-coated cardboard was vividly likened by Sheena Punkrocker, correspondent for the World Murdoch News Sponsored by Coca-Cola, to a lion tamer cracking his whip. A lone vuvuzela blared briefly before being drowned out by the force of 99,999 pairs of unassisted lungs. To the unbridled jubilation of the New Feroz Shah Kotla, with five minutes to spare, two wickets in hand and No. 11 unable to bat after suffering a deflated ego, India had finally won the World Test Championship.

As he stood at the crease, drinking in the moment, Sunil Tendulkar - aka "The New Rahul" - leaned on his bat and smiled softly, contentedly. He wanted to take his time, to contemplate and absorb the magnitude of this, his finest eight-and-three-quarter hours. After a few moments he emerged from his cocoon of inner elation and acknowledged the rapturous applause. To each stand in turn he pointed his bat, then bowed the deep, sweeping bow that had become his trademark. The standing ovation shattered the record set two years before by Everton Liverpool after his 502 for The Caribbean against South Africa; Tendulkar clocked 10 minutes and 43 seconds.

His first utterance at the press conference was less of a surprise. "I'll tell you what," he declaimed, before leaving a dramatic pause for maximum impact. And boy, did he love the suspense. Grinning from earring to earring, he fingered the "Live, Love, Laugh" neck-chain his grandfather had given him on his 13th birthday, the neck-chain Sachin had got from Sir Desmond Haynes, the one to which he attributed the late-career flourish that saw him score his first 300 at the grand old age of 47. At length, the young Master continued.

"I can't understand how they put up with all those one-innings games in the old days," he chuckled. "Talk about bor-RING! Virender Sehwag goes first ball and that's his lot. Or, more important, that's the crowd's lot. Think of all those 20-over games where the side batting first lost eight for 66 and the whole game lasted 45 minutes. What was all that about? Cricket's a two-innings game. It's a game of redemption, like life. Look at me. Three days ago, I top-edged to the keeper for a duck after misreading a double-slow bouncer and I was the biggest turd in town, the devil in imitation-cream polyester. Now I'm a hero, a bloody hero! And look at the emotions we've put that crowd through tonight, the ups and downs, the joy and the nerves and the thrills and the despair. You can't beat it."

One member of the media scrum decided that valour was the better part of discretion. "But Sunil," she sneered, "eight years ago, after India were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Nepal B, you were telling us that the one-innings game should be revived. What changed your mind?"

"Well…" Cue another dramatic pause: "Hearing granddad's stories about the revolution of 2012, just before he died last August. It was our last conversation. He told me about how crazy it was back then. Loads of different formats. Players turning up for a 20-over game thinking it was a 50-over game and forgetting the Powerplay lasted 25 overs. First-class matches and List A matches and Twenty20 matches. Bangladesh losing 70 of their first 80 Tests. Americans being more interested in soccer. Results decided by a couple of mathematicians. No World Premier League. Hell, there wasn't even a Test Championship. And all the games had to finish in five days. Some even finished inside two hours. Talk about defrauding the public.

"Granddad told me how it all came to a head after the 2011 World Cup. Apparently, the ICC president-in-waiting, Sir Michael Philip Jagger, was snapped by a photographer during the final while he was sound asleep. Apparently, after he saw the back pages the next morning - and especially one of the headlines, 'Dissatisfaction' - he vowed to transform the game. No more single-innings matches. No more bending and folding the game to suit TV schedules. 'Wild horses couldn't drag me to another 50-over match,' he said, according to granddad. 'I'm heading for my 99th nervous breakdown.' Granddad chuckled as he related that bit, though I can't imagine why."

Think of all those 20-over games where the side batting first lost eight for 66 and the whole game lasted 45 minutes. What was all that about? Cricket's a two-innings game. It's a game of redemption, like life

"Yeah," pointed out the lad from McDonald's USA Today, "but it was all a set-up, wasn't it? Hello! magazine broke the story. Sir Michael had reportedly been up all night drinking with his old pal Keef, who'd given him some potent tranquilisers to ensure he fell asleep during the match. Keef was the radical one. He couldn't tell the difference between an offbreak and a handbrake, but he was still radical."

"So what?" snapped Tendulkar, momentarily tetchy. He clearly had about as much fondness for being interrupted mid-flow as his grandfather had for Jason Gillespie. "The point's the same: everything changed. Okay, there was a period when the England and Wales Cricket Board tried to stall it all. Well, what do you expect when your team finally wins a World Cup at the tenth attempt? But another of Sir Michael's old drinking buddies, Dame Bowie, took over at the ECB shortly after and resistance evaporated."

Full flow had now resumed with a vengeance. "The Australians and the ECB apparently had this daft idea to introduce 50-over games with each team having one innings split into two 25-over chunks, but at least they were on the right track. I'm as patriotic as the next Indian-born-in-Bradford-and-bred-in-Bruges, but the Old World were well ahead of us there. Two separate innings was always going to be the answer, even if did take the Afghans and the Zimbabweans to make the commercial case for it. After all, with the help of a really good interpreter and a copy of A Clockwork Orange, it was they who came up with the slogan: 'The old in and out'. Sure, it needed a bit of rudeness, but how else were future generations, generations brought up on one-sentence news stories, going to be persuaded to understand the essence of the game?"

Stepping up to the podium as Tendulkar passed him the microphone, Wes Curtly-Courtney, the bowler of the tournament and winner of the Nastiest Bouncer award, hugged the Man of the Match then bent down to pick up the Caribbean flag that had dropped from his breast pocket. Standing up to his full 5ft 6in, he launched into his own song of praise.

"Sunil's bang-on, man. This is the only way to play. Hey, it's even a great way for kids to learn maths. Working out a first-innings deficit, how many runs are needed to avoid the follow-on, calculating a declaration that's just tempting enough - they all help, don't they? I know declarations don't mean quite as much now that we can play into a sixth day, but it's still one of the more scientific arts, now that the pitches almost always start green but still last a week."

"C'mon Wes," interjected the man from ESPN. "Don't tell me this is all about you educating my children."

"Yes I do, actually," chirped Curtly-Courtney. "Look at all those life lessons. Don't rush. Take the rough with the smooth. The sun don't always shine. Don't judge too quick. Don't give up. There's always a second innings, always a chance for redemption." Cue a typically sly googly from the Cricinfo correspondent: "So you're glad Tendulkar had two knocks, then?"

"In a way, yeah. Over the two innings they were better. That's why we call it a Test match. It tests every fibre and every cell. Punters love the way the story unfolds from day to day, the way every night can conjure up fresh scenarios and reawaken hope. My uncle Kemar told me there used to be something else that had that sort of effect, called a boke or somesuch, but after the Paper War of 2020 it disappeared. He also told me there was something called reality TV before they realised that nothing, not Big Brother; Celebrity Large Sister; I'm A Medium-Sized Aunt, Get Me Out of Here; or even Strictly Dirty Dancing, could compare with a show that could never be scripted, i.e. sport, and especially cricket. And the really clever bit was the decision to stimulate demand by playing all Tests as one-offs.

"Why do you think all those governments got together to nationalise the grounds? Why do you think they capped admission prices? Why do you think they made single-innings cricket a criminal offence?"

Time for one more question. Happily, the responsibility fell on the slimy shoulders of the Daily Gossip's resident smartarse. "John Lennon once upset a few people by claiming that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Would you go a step further, Wes, and say cricket is now bigger than football?"

Curtly-Courtney pondered for a moment, then smirked. "We're bigger than Jesus and football. Haven't you heard, man? Slow is the new high."

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton